With tears in her eyes, Ashley Wagner sat, huddled over with her coaches at the TD Garden in Boston, awaiting the scores that she knew just wouldn't be good enough.
When they were read, her total of 182.74 was good enough for first place, but she, along with everyone else in the arena, knew it wouldn't last. She momentarily shook her head, expressing disappointment in herself and her performance, before forcing a smile that hid the tumult that lay behind her eyes.
After failing to qualify for Vancouver in 2010 by the slimmest of margins (the result of a fall in her short program), a pair of falls, this time in the free skate, must have felt like deja vu for the 22-year-old.
Wagner's dream of heading to Sochi, being a part of Team USA and competing for gold and glory on an international stage seemed all but gone. It seemed that she would require something resembling a miracle to book her ticket and avoid the bitter pill of once again just missing.
Afterwards, she could hardly hide her disappointment. Little did we know, she was about to have her prayers answered and help spark a controversy that she'll need to use as fuel in Sochi.
But then, it happened.
Despite finishing behind not only eventual teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds but also Mirai Nagasu, who finished just off the podium in fourth at the Vancouver Games four years prior, Wagner had beat the odds and made the cut.
Nagasu briefly entertained the notion of formally protesting the team selection, but she later declined and recently took to her Facebook page to express her support for Wagner and the rest of the American team as they made final preparations to compete.
Wagner's selection was certainly controversial, but that didn't get her down.
She is justifiably thrilled by the chance to compete in her first Olympic Games, and for a skater who has had to overcome adversity her entire life, this, if anything, should only fuel her quest to prove that she belongs.
And she absolutely does.
In an interview with Johnny Dodd of People, Wagner showed that she understands why people were unconvinced, but maintained that she earned her spot:
Unfortunately, Saturday night just wasn't my night. But luckily for me I had plenty of other nights in the past couple of years that convinced everybody that I was ready to be on that team.
Selection isn't based on any one performance. If it were, Nagesu's supporters, or alternately Wagner's detractors, would have a legitimate gripe. But that simply isn't the case. A skater's resume is viewed within the lens of her performance over the course of the past year, not one single qualifying event.
It simply doesn’t make sense for U.S. Figure Skating to leave its best skater and, quite possibly, its best chance to medal, at home.
Prior to her fourth-place finish at the 2014 U.S. National Championships, Wagner had won the gold at Nationals two years running, and her fifth-place finish at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, was the reason the American team secured a third slot for Sochi to begin with.
Wagner has spent the past several years overcoming a slew of bad breaks, unfortunate events and struggles both on the ice and in her personal life.
Many skaters wouldn't have had the mental toughness to come as close to qualifying as she did in 2010—ironically, had there been a third slot available for those Games, she would've gone—only to see the dream die and then come back four years later to make the team.
In the time since her fall cost her a shot at Vancouver, Wagner has faced down a nasty split with her choreographer Phillip Mills, who publicly criticized her for not adapting to his vision for her skating programs, saw her coach John Nicks retire and her parents finalize a divorce after more than 20 years of marriage.
All of that, while attempting to get ready for the grueling grind that makes up the national and international competitions so crucial to booking a ticket to the Olympics.
With all of those changes, in a sport that is dominated by routine and a painstaking attention to detail, there is little else that can be thrown her way.
Viewed through that lens, a little consternation over her selection to the team seems like small potatoes.
Controversy is a tricky thing in sports. Everyone seems to react to it in different ways.
Some athletes allow it to consume them. Others use it to their benefit. They enter a game or competition with a chip on their shoulder. It provides them with further incentive to prove the naysayers wrong.
How must it feel for a skater as accomplished as Wagner, with multiple national championships and a solid record in international competitions—she currently ranks fourth overall and tops among American ladies in the International Skating Union world rankings—to even see people question whether or not she’s deserving?
Multi-time world champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton, addressed the issue of Wagner’s qualification in an interview with Scott Stump of Today:
The national championships aren’t the Olympic trials. The selection process for the Olympic Games goes on for a couple of years before the Olympic Games, so the nationals are a part of that process, but it’s not the process. So when you look at Ashley Wagner and what she’s done over the last two years, winning nationals twice, placing high enough in the world championships to allow three participants to go, she’s already earned her spot on the Olympic Team.
That's the type of thing that puts a chip on your shoulder and motivates you, but right now, she's just soaking it all in.
Ashley Wagner understands that she’s here, for lack of a better term, with a second lease on life. She understands how close she came to watching the festivities from home on her television for the second time in four years.
More than that, she knows that the spotlight is firmly on her back, and she may never get here again. If she flames out over the course of the next couple of weeks, she likely won’t ever get this chance again.
Has she struggled in big moments in the past? Yes.
Has she seemed to have a hard time turning practice into performance? Yes.
But all of that's in the past now. All that matters is Sochi and her ability to take a controversial selection and use it as motivation to remove all doubt.
The best way to do that is to hit the podium and bring a medal back to the United States.
And if she does, nobody will ever again question whether she belongs.
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